Residential schools report challenges us all

Posted on December 16, 2015 in Inclusion History – Opinion/Editorials – The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s searing final report into residential schools calls for a “new vision” for Canada-First Nations relations, based on common respect.
Dec 15 2015.   Editorial

Sphenia Jones is a survivor from the Haida Nation. As a child she was wrenched from her family on Haida Gwaii off British Columbia’s coast, put on a steamer to Prince Rupert and then shuffled on to a train bound for a residential school far inland.

For days, children on that train were “crying all the time, crying, crying, crying,” she told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. On the second day she found a baby abandoned in a corner. “I picked him up. I remember holding him … looking at his face.” There was “nothing to eat, nothing to drink,” she recalls. “I couldn’t give him anything.”

Was the baby Sphenia Jones cradled in her own childish arms that day one of the 3,201 children who are known to have died in the residential schools of malnutrition, tuberculosis, influenza and other scourges, many of them buried, forgotten, in unmarked graves? We will never know. But her story rings cruelly true for other survivors. Many of the 150,000 indigenous children who were uprooted from their communities between 1883 and 1996 faced lives of heartbreak, cultural deracination, permanent separation from family, and privation and abuse. As many as 6,000 may have died in the schools.

Decades later Canada has begun to make amends. Then-prime minister Stephen Harper apologized in 2008 for the “great harm” inflicted by Ottawa’s racist campaign to “take the Indian out of the child” by placing them in federally funded, church-run schools where physical, emotional and sexual abuse was rife. Since then, some 80,000 survivors have been paid more than $4.5 billion in compensation.

Now, as TRC chair Justice Murray Sinclair puts it, “we owe it to each other to build a Canada based on our shared future, a future of healing and trust.” In Ottawa on Tuesday, Sinclair released his final, massive report on Canada’s residential schools and their tragic legacy, at an emotional ceremony that left onlookers in tears. Fittingly, the report’s opening section calls for a “new vision” for Canada, “based on a commitment to mutual respect.”

The report records the voices of 6,000 courageous witnesses and the history of their suffering, stubborn resilience and later struggles, plus historical background data and context. While Sinclair released his main findings earlier this year, citing Canada for “cultural genocide” and putting forward 94 specific recommendations for making amends, the final report contains the searing evidentiary base that shaped his findings.

The report’s many “calls to action” set a high bar for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, but a bar he appears eager to tackle. Speaking at the ceremony, Trudeau promised to work for a “total renewal” of the nation-to-nation relationship between Canada and 1.4 million indigenous peoples. He thanked Sinclair for charting “a way forward.” And, to his credit, Trudeau is taking steps to reset the relationship.

In line with Sinclair’s call to action Trudeau acknowledges Ottawa’s “sacred obligation” to honour native rights. He has pledged more funding for health, housing and schooling. He has launched an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women. And he now promises to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

It doesn’t end there. Sinclair has also urged Ottawa to issue a Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation to reaffirm the nation-to-nation relationship. He wants Canadian schools to do a better job teaching aboriginal history, treaties and rights. He wants Ottawa to solicit an apology from the Pope for the wrongs committed in the church’s name. And he has called for strong, funded action to preserve aboriginal culture and languages, and to address other pressing issues including child welfare, health and justice.

The dark truths in these volumes are a national badge of shame. But they also challenge Canadians to right a terrible wrong. And they invite a younger generation to learn from the past, and to move forward together.

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